Who’s Afraid of the Exterminating Angel?

My husband is. “Contemporary opera? Thanks but no thanks. Hours of nothing but recitatives.” And declined to join me at the movie theatre.

He was probably right not to go. His interest in classical music is to experience something, well, classical, meaning “timeless” – something that endures, can be revisited and enjoyed musically. 20th century’s music followed another path. The purpose of art was redefined as something evoking a strong response, but not necessarily a pleasant one.

If you accept this notion you can appreciate pieces like “The Exterminating Angel” for what they are. It is great theatre – strong characters, great visuals, powerful sounds. The score is peppered with super high pitched notes and requires a countertenor, a boy soprano and a super high coloratura soprano. All in all this is something unique, that you are not going to find anywhere else.

If it were only that you would leave impressed but cold. What makes this show work is the story. I am glad I had not seen the original Buñuel movie, as it was all new, fresh; I did not know what was coming. The situation is absurd, surreal and scary and cannot be easily tied to current events but can be tied to everyone’s life experience. We live in the illusion of freedom, but in fact we are locked in our destiny, our historical moment, our social environment. We can feel rich and powerful one moment but it takes a political event, you of all of it in one day. That happened in Bolshevik revolution, Nazi’s Germany, in Rwanda, it is happening in Myanmar. Why do human-made horrors happen? It should be simple to just leave the party. Refuse to participate in evil madness – all it takes is to toss your gun. Not to persecute people. Not to blow yourself up in a crowded street or place of worship. Why are we humans not capable of “rebooting” in such instances and choosing another path? This is a very sad reality of our world and our existence.

“I am happy to die as I will not see the extermination.” says one of the opera characters. Extermination is not just death. Extermination is death at the hands of other humans that treat you like non-humans. The “reboot” of WW2 where dehumanizing ideology was defeated wears thin. New generations don’t realize the horror of it. We should be aware and concerned. And do something about it while we still can.

Metropolitan Opera audience

“The Exterminating Angel” Thomas Adès, Metropolitan Opera  Oct. 26 Nov. 21 2017.

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